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The Case for the Vegas Golden Knights to Tank Right from the Start

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  George McPhee speaks after being introduced as the general manager of the Las Vegas NHL franchise during a news conference at T-Mobile Arena on July 13, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Uncertainty is the order of the day surrounding this summer’s NHL expansion to Las Vegas. There hasn’t been expansion in the salary-cap era, and there will certainly be wheeling and dealing—not only between the new Vegas Golden Knights and the league’s 30 other teams but also between those 30 clubs as each tries to protect its most valuable players.

For all that ambiguity, one thing does seem clear: Vegas is going to be bad. The team should embrace that reality from the start.

We looked at the players likely to be lost to expansion back in September, and even before taking pre-draft trades are taken into account, the Golden Knights are looking at some awfully slim pickings. Toss in a Marc-Andre Fleury trade here or an Alex Killorn deal there, and the list of candidates gets worse in a hurry.

The rules are a little more favourable to Vegas than they were to the teams in the last wave of NHL expansion, but those teams were so bad that a tweak to the rulebook just isn't going to matter.

Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley couldn't make the Thrashers competitive or save them from extinction.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley couldn't make the Thrashers competitive or save them from extinction.GREGORY SMITH/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Minnesota Wild went on one early run in their third year of existence but would need a decade before they next won a playoff series. The Nashville Predators won their first playoff round 13 years after entering the league. The Columbus Blue Jackets have yet to win a postseason series, and the Atlanta Thrashers died before they ever could.

Given that history, even a five-year plan to go from nothing to contender is an ambitious goal for Vegas. What the Golden Knights have working in their favour that those other teams didn’t is the salary cap.

Cap space is an incredible asset in the modern NHL. Teams across the league are desperate for financial wiggle room, and it’s a rare club indeed that doesn’t have some bad contract it is eager to clear off its books. Las Vegas GM George McPhee should make his team the dumping ground for unwanted contracts. Even a five-year deal shouldn’t faze the Knights, provided that the team trying to get rid of it is willing to pony up to make a deal happen. 

Virtually any contract, no matter how toxic, could be palatable to the Knights at the right price.

Dustin Brown's awful contract makes a trade difficult.
Dustin Brown's awful contract makes a trade difficult.Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press/Associated Press

What would the Los Angeles Kings be willing to part with to rid themselves of Dustin Brown’s deal, which runs for five years after this season at a cap hit of $5.875 million? There isn’t a team in the league that would be willing take that commitment on, but Las Vegas could—and might not mind adding a guy who captained the Kings to a Cup win to its young roster.

Brown’s deal is far from the only albatross on the books around the league. From the New York Rangers’ Dan Girardi to Andrew MacDonald of the Philadelphia Flyers to David Clarkson in Columbus to all the other bad deals out there, there’s just no shortage of mistakes that NHL teams would happily bury in Nevada.

In a lot of cases, the players with those lousy contracts are going to be a step up from what will be available to the Golden Knights in expansion anyway.

Arizona added Crouse and Chychrun thanks to its willingness to take on cap hits.
Arizona added Crouse and Chychrun thanks to its willingness to take on cap hits.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

We have seen these kinds of deals before.

The Arizona Coyotes took Dave Bolland’s contract off the Florida Panthers’ hands in exchange for prospect Lawson Crouse this past summer. Crouse has had a difficult rookie pro campaign but was a No. 11 overall pick back in 2015; that’s not a bad return for taking on the cap hit of an injured player. The Coyotes also leveraged their acceptance of Pavel Datsyuk’s cap hit (though no actual money) into defenceman Jakob Chychrun.

Crouse and Chychrun are the kind of prospects who might make a difference in how quickly Vegas gets competitive, and frankly, the Golden Knights could probably do better still. Arizona had cap space but not the ability to take on actual salary, whereas the NHL’s newest team will have the ability to handle both and should be able to push for greater trade returns as a result.

The important thing is to do it right away.

Taking on a long-term albatross deal will get progressively more difficult with each passing year. If Vegas is taking a five-year approach to getting competitive, it can take on a five-year commitment now but would only be able to handle a four-year commitment next year. It’s vital that these deals be off the books by the time the Golden Knights have climbed out of the league basement.

Cap space will also go fast. Where it isn't used as a way to leverage futures out of other teams, it will be burned in less productive ways. 

There’s also a vital need to acquire prospects and draft picks in quantity as early as possible. A lot of the teams looking to offload bad contracts will be contenders that have already moved a bunch of assets at the trade deadline, meaning their trade offers may be for future years.

Any pick outside the first round is probably going to need five years to develop before they can boost an NHL team, so Las Vegas needs to make them as quickly as possible to fit with their own timeline.

The important thing here is that the Golden Knights be cold-blooded about this from the start. The delusion of being competitive immediately should not be entertained. Rather, the play here is to accumulate young assets, and the best way to obtain a critical mass of those is by leveraging the team's cap space during these cellar years.

The process should begin before the team makes its first selection at this summer's expansion draft.

      

Statistical information courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com. Salary details via CapFriendly.com.  

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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